Sonderweg (literally: "special path") is a controversial theory in German historiography that considers the German-speaking lands, or the country Germany, to have followed a unique course from aristocracy into democracy, distinct from other European countries. It is also used to explain German foreign policy and ideology before and during World War I, which was characterized by trying to find a "Third Way" to be implemented for the world, other than western "vulgar" democracy or eastern czaristic autocracy. The modern school of thought by that name arose early during World War II in consequence of the rise of Nazi Germany. In consequence of the scale of the devastation wrought on Europe by Nazi Germany, the Sonderweg theory of German history has progressively gained a following inside and outside of Germany, especially since the late 1960s. In particular, its proponents argue that the way Germany developed over the centuries virtually ensured the evolution of a social and political order along the lines of Nazi Germany. In their view, German mentalities, the structure of society, and institutional developments followed an "abnormal" course in comparison with the other nations of the West, which had a "normal" development of their histories.

19th century

The term Sonderweg was first used by German conservatives in the Imperial period, starting in the late 19th century as a source of pride at the "Golden Mean" of governance that in their view had been attained by the German state, whose distinctiveness as an authoritarian state lay in taking the initiative in instituting social reforms, imposing them without waiting to be pressured by demands "from below". This type of authoritarianism was seen as avoiding both the flaws of the autocracy of the Imperial Russian type as well as what they regarded as the weakness, decadence, and ineffectuality of the democratic governments of the United Kingdom and France.

20th century

During World War II

Nazi Germany's occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and its invasion of Poland in September 1939 (the latter invasion immediately drawing France and Britain into war and thus starting what would become World War II) provoked the drive to explain the phenomenon of Nazi Germany. In 1940, Sebastian Haffner, a German émigré living in Britain, published Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, in which he argued it was Adolf Hitler alone, by his peculiar personality, who had brought about Nazi Germany. In 1941, the British baron Robert Vansittart published The black record: Germans past and present, according to which Nazism was only the latest manifestation of what Vansittart argued were the exclusively German traits of aggressiveness and brutality. Other books with a thesis similar to Vansittart's were Rohan O'Butler's The Roots of National Socialism (1941) and William Montgomery McGovern's From Luther to Hitler: The History of Nazi-Fascist Philosophy (1946).

Early postwar period

It was after Germany's defeat in World War II in 1945 that the term Sonderweg lost its positive connotations from the 19th century and acquired its present negative meaning. There was much debate about the origins of this "German catastrophe" (as the German historian Meinecke titled his 1946 book) of Nazi Germany's rise and fall. From that time since, scholars have examined developments in intellectual, political, social, economic and cultural history in order to discover why German democracy failed during the Weimar Republic and what factors had led to the rise of National Socialism. In the 1960s, many historians concluded that the failure of Germany to develop firm democratic institutions in the 19th century had ensured the failure of the Weimar Republic in the 20th century.

For the first two decades or so following World War II, the Sonderweg debate was polarized with most non-German participants at one pole and German participants at the other. Historians like Léon Poliakov, A. J. P. Taylor, and Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier, echoed by journalists like the American William L. Shirer, portrayed Nazism as the inevitable result of German history, reflecting unique flaws in "German national character" going back to at least the days of Martin Luther, if not earlier. In contrast, German historians such as Friedrich Meinecke, Hans Rothfels, and Gerhard Ritter, joined by a few non-German historians such as Pieter Geyl, contended that the Nazi period had no relationship to earlier periods of German history, and that German traditions were at sharp variance with the totalitarianism of the Nazi movement. Meinecke famously described National Socialism in his 1946 book Die Deutsche Katastrophe ("The German Catastrophe") as a particularly unfortunate Betriebsunfall ("on-the-job accident") of history. Although opposed to what they regarded as Meinecke's excessively defensive tone, Ritter and Rothfels have been joined by their intellectual heirs Klaus Hildebrand, Karl Dietrich Bracher, and Henry Ashby Turner in contending that though the Nazi dictatorship was rooted in the German past, it was individual choices made during the later Weimar years that led to the Nazi years.

Since ca. 1965

Starting in the 1960s, historians such as Fritz Fischer and Hans-Ulrich Wehler argued that, unlike France and the United Kingdom, Germany had experienced only "partial modernization", in which industrialization was not followed by changes in the political and social spheres, which in the opinion of Fischer and Wehler continued to be dominated by a "pre-modern" aristocratic elite. In the opinion of the proponents of the Sonderweg thesis, the crucial turning point was the Revolution of 1848, when German liberals failed to seize power and consequently either emigrated or chose to resign themselves to being ruled by a reactionary elite and living in a society that taught its children obedience, appreciation of militarism, and pride in a very complex notion of German culture. During the latter half of the Second Reich (the Wilhelmine German Empire), from about 1890 to 1918, this pride, they argued, developed into hubris. Since 1950, historians such as Fischer, Wehler, and Hans Mommsen have drawn a harsh indictment of the German elite of the period 1870-1945, who were accused of promoting authoritarian values during the Second Reich, being solely responsible for launching World War I, sabotaging the democratic Weimar Republic, and aiding and abetting the Nazi dictatorship in internal repression, war, and genocide. In the view of Wehler, Fischer, and their supporters, only the German defeat in 1945 put an end to the “premodern” social structure which had led to and then sustained traditional German authoritarianism and its more radical variant, National Socialism.

Another version of the Sonderweg thesis emerged in the United States in the 1950s-1960s, when historians such as Fritz Stern and George Mosse examined ideas and culture in 19th century Germany, especially those of the virulently anti-Semitic völkisch movement. Mosse and Stern both concluded that the intellectual and cultural elites in Germany by and large chose to consciously reject modernity and along with it those groups they identified with modernity, such as Jews, and embraced anti-Semitism as the basis for their Weltanschauung (world-view). However, in recent years, Stern has abandoned his conclusion and now argues against the Sonderweg thesis, holding the views of the völkisch movement to be a mere “dark undercurrent” in the Second Reich.

Another variant of the Sonderweg theory has been provided by Michael Stürmer who, echoing claims of conservative historians during the Imperial and Weimar periods, argues that it was geography that was the key to German history. Stürmer contends that what he regards as Germany’s precarious geographical situation in the heart of Central Europe left successive German governments no other choice but to engage in authoritarianism. Stürmer’s views have been very controversial; they would become one of the central issues in the notorious Historikerstreit ("Historians’ Quarrel") of the mid 1980s. One of Stürmer’s leading critics, Jürgen Kocka, himself a proponent of the Sonderweg view of history, argued that “Geography is not destiny”, suggesting that the reasons for the Sonderweg were political and cultural instead.

Subdebate over history of German anti-Semitism

Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men opposed the theory that Germans in the Nazi era were motivated by an especially virulent anti-Semitism that had characterized German culture for centuries. Analyzing the troops of the special police battalion units, who were the ones who directly killed Jews in the mass raids phase of the Holocaust (prior to the death camps), Browning concluded that these typical middle class workers were not ingrained with anti-Semitism, but rather became killers through peer pressure and indoctrination. Ordinary Men prompted the American, Daniel Goldhagen to try to renew the debate on the Sonderweg in his 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners. Goldhagen countered that German society, politics, and life up until 1945 were characterized by a unique version of extreme anti-Semitism that held the murder of Jews as the highest possible national value. His critics (e.g, Yehuda Bauer) replied that Goldhagen ignored most recent research and ignored other developments both in Germany and abroad. Bauer's close colleague, Ruth Birn declared that the essential sources were misquoted. There were objections that too many of Goldhagen's statements were in the conditional tense. In the end, he failed to make a true contribution to the research on either the Sonderweg or the history of Nazi Germany. He succeeded only in restoking debate on the old question of a German "collective guilt", thus not achieving his intention in publishing the book as it was formulated by him in the German edition.


The leading critics of the Sonderweg thesis have been two British Marxist historians, Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, who in their 1984 book The Peculiarities of German History argued that there is no "normal" course of social and political change; that the experience of France and Britain in the 19th century was not the norm for Europe; and that even if the liberal German middle class was disempowered at the national political level, it nevertheless dominated the social, economic and cultural life of 19th century Germany; and this embourgeoisement of German social life was greater than in Britain and France, which in the opinion of Eley and Blackbourn were much more marked by aristocratic values than was Germany. Many scholars have disputed Eley's and Blackbourn's conclusions, among them Jürgen Kocka and Wolfgang Mommsen. Kocka in particular has argued that while the Sonderweg thesis may not explain the reasons for the rise of the Nazi movement, it still explains the failure of the democratic Weimar Republic. This seems to entail that the issue of the Sonderweg is limited to an individual development (albeit of a type frequently encountered). Thus, many historians today feel that the Sonderweg theory fails to account for similarities and distinctions with other dictatorships and ethnic cleansings.

Attempted application of the concept to German history before 1806

When Charlemagne, King of the Franks was crowned the first "Holy Roman Emperor" by the Pope in Rome in 800 A.D., this marked a medieval ideal of a reconstituted Roman Empire in the West. However, throughout the early modern period, the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, who generally had to rely on his dukes and kings until and unless the strongest of these became Emperor with repeated dynastic shifts, diminished continuously after the golden sunset under Charles V.

There have been those who applied the Sonderweg theory to German history before the 1806 the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire, arguing that while every other country in 18th and early 19th century Europe (with the exception of the Italian lands) was consolidating into more or less coherent nation-states with virtually "fixed" and often natural boundaries, "Germany" was in fact disintegrating into ever smaller autonomous regions under the nominal control of the Holy Roman Emperor. This supposedly set a unique pattern among European states that resulted in Nazism. This view ignores the long and consciously held self identification that the Holy Roman Empire was a supranational structure in the literal sense, i.e. many nations were rightfully and even naturally part of it, e.g., Czech speaking Bohemia along with numerous Italian speaking polities south of the Alps down to and occasionally including Sicily. Only over time did "the Empire" come to be more and more delimited to its Germanic areas, and come to be identified with varying degrees of formality and officialness as "Das Heilige Romische Reich Deutscher Nation", The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

As Schubert states, the history of the Holy Roman Empire is not to be confused with the Sonderweg, which can only be seen as a result of the concept of German identity, developing in the Romanticism of the late 18th century, enforced by the French revolutionary war against Germany. Previous events, especially not the Holy Roman Empire, cannot be related to the evolution of Nazism.



  • Blackbourn, David & Eley, Geoff. 1984. The Peculiarities of German History: bourgeois society and politics in nineteenth-century Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Revised and expanded translation of the authors' Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung: Die gescheiterte bürgerliche Revolution von 1848, 1980. (This in turn was actually a translation of two articles the authors wrote in English; see untitled book review by Allan Mitchell in The American Historical Review, 1982 Oct., 87(4):1114-1116.)
  • Browning, Christopher. 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York : HarperCollins.
  • Goldhagen, Daniel J. 1996. Hitler's willing executioners. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Grebing, Helga. 1986. Der "deutsche Sonderweg in Europa 1806-1945: Eine Kritik. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.
  • Groh, Dieter. 1983. Le Sonderweg de l'histoire allemande: Mythe ou rèalitè. Annales, Economies, Societè, Civilisations, 38:1166-1187.
  • Hamerow, Theodore S. 1983. Guilt, Redemption and Writing German History. The American Historical Review, February 1983, 88:53-72.
  • Heilbronner, Oded. 2000. From Antisemitic Peripheries to Antisemitic Centres: The Place of Antisemitism in Modern German History. Journal of Contemporary History, 35(4):559-576.
  • Jarusch, Konrad. 1983. Illiberalism and Beyond: German History in Search of a Paradigm. Journal of Modern History, 55:647-686.
  • Kershaw, Ian. 2000. The Nazi Dictatorship Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. London: Arnold Press.
  • Kocka, Jürgen. 1988. German History before Hitler: The Debate about the German Sonderweg. Journal of Contemporary History, 23:3-16.
  • Moeller, Robert. 1983. The Kaiserreich Recast?: Continuity and Change in Modern German Historiography. Journal of Social History, 1983-1984, Volume 17:655-684.
  • Mommsen, Wolfgang. 1980. Review of Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung. Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, 4:19-26.
  • Pulhe, Hans-Jürgen. 1981. Deutscher Sonderweg Kontroverse um eine vermeintliche Legande. Journal für Geschichte, 4:44-45.
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. 1985. The German Empire, 1871-1918. Kim Traynor, translator. Leamington Spa: Berg.
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. 1981. "Deutscher Sonderweg" oder allgemeine Probleme des westlichen Kapitalismus. Merkur, 5:478-487.

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